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Grosse Pointe North beats Port Huron Northern, 48-31, in MAC Red/White tournament championship, completing unbeaten run through league

By: Matthew B. Mowery, February 24, 2019, 12:50 am

GROSSE POINTE — The ‘superstar’ treatment is a form of flattery to the person at which it’s aimed. 

When a team breaks out a box-and-one, or a triangle-and-two to try to take away a specific player, it’s the ultimate version of “We can’t let *THIS* player beat us.”

But it also presupposes that the remainder of the team is less capable of doing the same thing.

Once a player sees that kind of thing repeatedly, though, the rest of their teammates get pretty used to the concept of picking up the slack and moving on.

In fact, there are times — like in Saturday’s Macomb Area Conference Red/White championship game — when the Grosse Pointe North squad would rather that Michigan State-bound Julia Ayrault would just go stand in the corner, dragging her dedicated defender out of the way so they can do what they need to do.

“A couple of times, they were like ‘Just get her out of the way. We’ll go four-on-four. It’s fine. C’mon,’” Ayrault laughed. “It is complimentary, but it’s tiring, I think. You’ve gotta work to even get the ball. They (the Huskies) did a really nice job with it tonight, obviously. We have so many good pieces to our team that, they can do that to me, and my teammates are so good at rising to that, and taking care of business. …

“They’re very good at stepping up and taking care of what they needed to do.”

Port Huron Northern’s plan of using a box-and-one and face-guarding worked to an extent, limiting Ayrault to just four first-half points. But she’d get going in the second half, merely adding to the margin her teammates had already established, rolling to a 48-31 win to claim the Red/White tournament title.

It completed an unbeaten run through the always ultra-competitive MAC Red regular season, as well as the postseason, for the Norsemen (17-2). At the start of the season, nobody thought that anyone would get through the Red gauntlet unscathed.

“I wouldn’t give you any odds. I was very surprised we were able to do that. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. … If you’d asked me that question three months ago, there’s no way in the world,” North coach Gary Bennett said. “I mean, you just look at the rest of the Red, and they beat up on each other. We were fortunate to come out on top on every single Red Division game. We could’ve lost to them (the Huskies). We were down by 14 in the fourth quarter, and we worked our tails off to get back. It told the girls that I thought it had never been done, and they’d accomplished something pretty big.”

They did it with balance — like in Saturday’s game where eight different players scored, led by Ayrault’s 16, eight from Maddie Kohler and seven from Evelyn Zacharias — and by not being fixated on running things through their star player.

“This team has really bought into us being a team. I don’t think anybody comes and looks at us and says, ‘Well, they just always look to Julia …’ No. She gets a lot done, I get that. But the other kids get a lot done, too, that they don’t get the recognition for,” Bennett said.

“I’ve always tried to focus on this: I don’t try to set up this team around one person. Every person has an equal opportunity to score. We have virtually nothing that is a set-up for one person. We want to move the ball and find the most open person.

“That’s why I believe that when somebody throws a junk defense at us like that, we’re going to have other people step up, because we haven’t just focused on one person. You know, what if you focus everything on person, and then they get injured. Then you’re doomed.”

Ayrault has spent her fair share of time nicked up throughout her high school career — including now. She did damage to the ligaments across the second joint of her right thumb, then aggravated it further trying to brace herself in a fall in the loss to Harper Woods Chandler Park on Feb. 8.

“I tore the ligaments in one of my joints. I’m going to have to cast it after the season, but right now I’m just wearing (a soft brace), so I don’t move it,” Ayrault said, noting that the doctors said she couldn’t damage it further by playing. “When it gets hit, it hurts, obviously. But whatever — I’d rather be playing and worry about it after.”

The 6-foot-2 senior winced a few times in pain in Saturday’s game, but that didn’t stop her from attempting to block shots left and right. While she was limited to four first-half points, she contributed five blocks in the first two quarters, along with a handful of long outlet passes for assists.

“She’s a great teammate. If I was on the floor with her, I’d love it, because she will find you, if you’re open. I firmly believe that she likes making the great pass more than she likes scoring,” Bennett said. “But it’s a burden she bears: because she’s able to score, she does need to score.”

She also is working on perfecting the art of the partial block — where you can snatch the rebound after deflecting the shot — rather than just blast away, spiking the ball into the second row.

“It’s obviously more fun to swat it into the second row, but Mr. Bennett said a couple of times, ‘If you can tip it to yourself and get it, that’s like a turnover for us.’ That’s definitely been a focus of mine, rather than just swatting the ball out of bounds, trying to tip it to myself,” Ayrault said, noting that after she and her teammates block a few, it starts to get shooters looking over their shoulders. “We just have people on their toes, which helps us. … It definitely helps get into their heads a bit.”

The Norsemen led the Huskies 10-6 after one quarter, and 22-17 at the half. Once Ayrault picked up her scoring in the second half — with four points in the third quarter and eight in the fourth — Grosse Pointe North was able to pull away, leading 36-23 headed into the fourth.

“When you see a team three times, you try to give them a little bit different looks, but she’s tough to stop,” Huskies coach Kevin Landschoot said. “They’re a very good team, tough to play.  All year, they played excellent defense. We had some shots that didn’t fall, and we weren’t as sharp as we normally are.”

Sarah Wight led Port Huron Northern (12-8) with 10 points, while Sydney Koppinger had nine.